Everything Must Go

By Ben Seymour, 10 April 2000
Image: Still from We Are The People, Beagles & Ramsay, 1999

If the CRASH! Corporatism & Complicity exhibition at the ICA didn’t live up to its Situationist swagger, was it more than just an exercise in recycling avant-garde strategies? Benedict Seymour asks what modes of resistance are left to artists in an era of ‘creative capitalism’, ‘Prada Meinhof’ and art for business’ sake.

"Ironic mimesis is not critique, it is the mentality of a slave!" It may be hard to fit on a badge, but this was one of the more resonant slogans plastered across the walls of London’s ICA in the dying months of the 20th century. Amid the slew of agit prop stickers and corporate Newspeak that formed the CRASH! show’s background hum of unrest, this testy aphorism hung in the air, needling at you and its surroundings. The phrase seemed to refer outwards to the banal self-reflexivity of the media, cultural recycling, the ‘anarchic’ mummery of licensed fools like Chris Evans or Jim Carey of which the show’s curators have written so harshly. But it also turned back on its immediate environment, drawing attention to the artists’ own varied but almost universal reliance on modes of subversive appropriation.

The ICA obviously didn’t feel as absolute about the psychic servitude involved in this strategy, declaring in the pre-show blurb: "The artists in CRASH! mimic a range of activities and services, from trading, marketing, spin doctoring, genetic engineering, and advertising to spying and hairdressing." Is there a margin for critical reflection in such techniques or do the institutions and discourses imitated overwhelm the art? What modes should an effective critical art deploy? And is ‘critique’ a proper vocation for art anyway? These were questions raised (but not necessarily resolved) by the show — and this precisely because of the curators’ unusually vocal commitment to a kind of engaged, socially conscious art not much witnessed in the ‘Cool Britannia’ ’90s.

Matt Worley and Scott King, already known for their self-published magazine, billboard subversions and style mag rants, co-ordinated this art gallery extension of their dissident media project in collaboration with the ICA’s Emma Dexter and Vivian Gaskin. Having made clear their impatience with the false liberations of postindustrial capitalism — from ‘flexible’ working to corporatised leisure — they now had a proper gallery with a selection of artists, activists and theorists of their choosing with whom to explore the themes of ‘Corporatism & Complicity’ referenced in the exhibition’s subtitle. Proclaiming that CRASH! would be "both a reflection and a condemnation" of contemporary life, this was an unusually ambitious, confrontational approach which would take some living up to.

The curators stressed their intention to break with the self-indulgence and harebrained trivia of recent British art, and emphasised a commitment to ideas, politics, and a less fetishistic conception of the artwork. Instead of decorative self-absorption and an obsession with ‘identity’, this would be non-commodified, performative and even artless art with a design upon its viewers’ minds as much as their senses / wallets. The artists were looking at some subjects already familiar from the work of their populist yBA forbears, "real and even banal everyday concerns" being a hot ticket in the arte povera 90s, but their ambitions were larger, encompassing the topics of work and money, consumerism and dissent, globalisation and investment, democracy and the market and the interpenetration of all of these.

In the Corporatism-and-complicity equation the latter could have been a reference to the general state of culture vis-a-vis the market, or specifically that of art, but for sure it was also a self-dramatising acknowledgement of the show’s own conditions of possibility. Colliding the neutral space of the office (Rachel Baker installed a temp agency for artists complete with desk and waiting room, Szuper Gallery engaged in online day trading near the entrance to the show) with the makeshift architecture of contemporary protest (Inventory erected a wigwam full of polemic and information — a centre of operations, not a piece of art ), the show as a whole was more ambivalent than the CRASH! boys’ rhetoric let on. If it lacked the wild energy of their punk rock heroes, preferring constructive dialogue and dissident focus grouping to riotous assembly (Kate Glazer hosted an ongoing discussion forum in the gallery and online called ‘Thinktank/ Mindpool’), the show did share punk’s proto-Thatcherite brazeness about feeding from the hand it was biting. It seemed both unnerving and appropriate that sponsorship should come from the 90s masters of ‘ironic’ retro advertising, Diesel.

Of course, corporate patronage is not exactly unusual, but Matt Worley’s noisy dissatisfaction with the ‘Prada Meinhof’ and the choice of this particular sponsor seemed to point up the ironies of art’s compromised position. Who better, cynics might ask, to fund a simulacral recycling of 70s political and conceptualist gestures than the arch recyclers of 70s kitsch? The CRASH! catalogue is punctuated with updated Situationist squibs and, sometimes, clumsy soixante-huiticisms ("Never work, Never Sleep", "Burn It Down", "London’s Burning With Boredom Now"), just as Diesel clothing’s influential ad campaigns deployed what you might call an ‘ironic mimesis’ of the mendacious high consumerist rhetoric the Situationists more maliciously détourned ("Diesel: for Successful Living"). Diesel were surely aware of the kind of non-conformism they were trying to align themselves with, since their pitch relies on their target group’s self perception as ‘different’, sophisticated and un-duped. As Worley himself has written, vampiric capitalism recently moved on from recycled kitsch to the exhumation and (unselfconsciously) ironic mimesis of the signs of its erstwhile antithesis: from Che Guevara bars and terrorism on t-shirts, to the e-commerce ‘revolution’ and the rehabilitation of Marx — the sign of capitalism’s material triumph is also the index of its symbolic feebleness. The superficial or not-so-superficial similarity of sponsors, curators and artists in relying on modes of pastiche and varieties of subversion just emphasised how ambiguous the return to a critical art might be in the current climate, whatever the convictions of those involved.

Could CRASH! escape from the potential neutralisations and make a show that was more than a blank parody of political dissent? Perhaps, despite the curators commitments, the artists weren’t too worried. All shared a suspicion of art’s once vaunted claim to autonomy, and their often textual or performative ‘pieces’ tended to emphasise that art, business and other kinds of work exist in a continuum: Janice Kerbel gave us meticulously detailed plans for a bank job, as if taking the old conceptualist ideal of art as an (uncommodified) blueprint for a work to be executed by others to its logical, materialist conclusion; Matthieu Laurette’s ‘art’ was the ongoing project of his subsistence, living, since 1996, on money-back products — an example of scrimping rebelliousness whose margin of aesthetic ‘freedom’ must become as routine and time-consuming as any other job.

On the other hand, beyond the preliminary assumption of art’s implication in everything else, there seemed to be important differences in orientation. The forms of simulation deployed by the artists, ranging from a direct (re)enactment of corporate work-leisure in the temple of art (Szuper Gallery’s day trading activities, Rachel Baker’s temp agency putting artists in touch with potential employers) through John Beagles and Graham Ramsay’s didactic appropriation of the schoolroom wallchart to present viewers with a neglected history of metropolitan protest (Wat Tyler Wot Happened?), to Heath Bunting’s (spoof ?) DIY kit for producing GM resistant weeds (Natural Reality Superweed Kit 1.0), were as diverse in content and agenda as they were unified in strategy. Perhaps it was this dependence on second order mimesis — whether imitating corporate discourse or directly intervening in its processes — that heightened the show’s homogeneity. Even when the general tone of the artists was polemical and combative, as with the Inventory group, the politicised discourse was freighted with self-consciousness. Their list of demands, scribbled across the slats of a Venetian blind that hung in the centre of the tent, was sincerely belligerent but ruefully and comically self-cancelling: "We Demand that Sweden be flatpacked and shipped to Kosovo! / We demand that artists… oh, forget it." Acknowledging the incongruity of the gallery situation and the intransigence of their audience, even enemies of ironic mimesis could not sustain a rabble rousing discourse without, well, irony. As Novalis wrote, despair is the most terribly witty state of all.

Where Szuper Gallery seemed to indulge a fascination with the abstraction of high finance out of a desire to probe the latter for possible points of weakness, Carey Young’s video Everything You’ve Heard Is Wrong got even closer to its imitated object. The video showed a corporate-suited Young presenting an immaculate rendition of a business communication skills presentation at Speaker’s Corner. As the straggle of passers by and oration-lovers gathered and dispersed in the foreground, a fervent Moslem demagogue could be made out at the edge of the frame, creating an odd collision of sacred and secular modes in this anachronistic relic of the old public sphere. The passion and depth of the one would contrast wryly with the neutrality and selfreflexivity of the other. And yet, despite their ostensible disparity, in form and content, both perhaps aspired to a perfected communion, and neither mode could have been foreseen by the Victorian burghers who inaugurated this space. A presentation on public speaking at Speakers Corner? The world had swung from Chartism to flowcharts. The circularity of the performance made one think of the cancerously proliferating business book business, and the post-literacy of their authors. The recursive loop of addressing an audience with a lecture about how to hold an audience’s attention, and the lecture’s title, which xeroxed corporate language but also turned it against itself, gave off a cool absurdism.

It might be tempting to read the performance as a parodic reflection on the frictionless corporate ideal of ‘communication’, the reification of the richness of language by a base functionalism. Yet the deadpan mode, which was funny but not that funny, distinguished her schtick from straight satire. In addition, Young’s own reported enthusiasm for developing the synergies between creative businesses and the business-like creatives who work for them mitigates against such an interpretation. Perhaps this was the ‘ironic mimesis’ condemned in the slogan, a habit (or ‘slave mentality’) of empty mockery adopted in order to sustain the banalisation of everyday life? (This is surely the logic of the ‘subversive’ current affairs comedy show, not so much an assault on the status quo as a device for coping with, and hence reproducing, it.) But, on the other hand, who said art had to issue in ‘critique’? The ambiguity and complexity of connotation here seems to me more interested in a Keatsian ‘being in uncertainty’ than a rush to either polemic or comic relief. If some of the CRASH! artists had already identified the enemy and the field of combat in advance, Young’s approach retained a ludic openness that should not be summarily written off as co-opted. Young’s practice, reformist rather than revolutionary in tendency, may accept the parameters of the brave new corporate world but in its sensitivity to the implosion of previously distinct categories could be more useful than reheating old battle cries for gallery consumption. As Young has suggested, creativity and imagination, the intellectual and conceptual dexterity traditionally the preserve of the artist, have become fetishised values in the postindustrial workplace. Where the CRASH! curators recoil in horror from this reification of human potential, Young seems to play with the possibilities of ‘personal development’. Taking the logic of the yBAs’ entrepreneurialism a step further, on closer inspection the CRASH! show could have been heralding the next stage in arts subsumption under capitalism as much as calling for its revenge.

The ambiguities of Young’s work contrast usefully with those of another video-documented performance: We The People by Beagles and Ramsey. At first sight similar to Young’s work in its incongruous intervention in the public sphere, the video shows the artists attempting to make contact with secret service agents and presenting a provocatively vacuous petition to 10 Downing Street (It read simply "We The People", as if commencing a list of demands then immediately giving up). Apart from the deliberate futility of these activities, the fact that the actors/ artists had assumed the iconic appearance of Taxi Driver’s postmodern antihero, Travis Bickle, from the proto-punk mohican and manic De Niro grin down to the army boots, upped the ludicrousness quotient. Again, the performance’s futile non sequiturs seemed calculated to expose the hollowness of an institution, the alienation implicit in democratic representation, within a comic mode now hyper-familiar from postmodern British TV comedy (think of Adam & Joe, or the routinised assimilation of Chris Morris’s innovations in the 11 o’Clock Show). But the identification with the psychotic, vengeful figure of Bickle — the isolated, skewed crusader of a corrupt post-Vietnam polis — cut both ways, suggesting more meanings than the piece could organise. Lost in the labyrinth of implications, the sense of disenfranchisement and atomisation evoked by the original film returned as bathos. Here the work didn’t get beyond its mimesis of an already over-familiar if ambivalent signifier, leaving the world as dizzyingly cluttered with references and depleted signs of representation as it found it.

One could summarise the difference between the CRASH! show’s artists less on the level of technique or address (since imitation was common to almost all) than in whether or not they hoped to wring a final refusal of the global situation out of the deadlock their work evoked; in the case of Beagles and Ramsay, Heath Bunting or the Inventory group, pushing towards a more radical gesture to which their art and theorising was a partial contribution, or on the other hand, with Young, accepting the indeterminacy of the postmodern condition, the apparent absence of alternatives, and turning one’s attention to improving conditions within these limits as a kind of expanded, executive aestheticism. But did any of the work on show give a taste of these potentials, a breath of the new, improved life latent in ‘the banality of everyday life’? Between the latterday Situationists — who consider art already superseded by activism and regard such gallery interventions as merely one weapon in the cultural terrorist’s arsenal — and the business artists — following Warhol’s trajectory out of the autonomous sphere of art and into the office — there seemed little to choose. Neither offered a compelling aesthetic jolt of alterity or opened up a sense of escape. Ultimately the show’s very dependence on the genres of corporatised and commodified culture made the latter’s presence suffocating — the artists almost seemed to be hiding in the cloak of the adversary, afraid to strike out into anything so arrogantly deluded as a self-sufficient work.

Except for Mark Leckey, that is. The only piece in the show that was willing to sell out to the sensuous, whilst confidently registering seismic cultural shifts, was his video (not a document of an intervention this time but a deconstructed montage of documentary footage), Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. Shut away behind black rubber curtains in a club-like darkness and projected across the length and depth of the room, it was a disorienting and heady shot of image after the dry texts that preceded it. Like guilty voyeurs, viewers could finally indulge their sick taste for sensory stimulation and narrative pleasure in this history of popular dance culture from northern soul to acid house. Faced with the conceptualist mirror of late capitalism who could blame you for taking the traditional route and getting out of it by getting out of your head?

This was not in fact an ‘escapist’ film, however. The form was chronological but discontinuous, the significance of the changes in gesture, dress, and musical style registered in the diverse source materials not explicated for the viewer but offered up for analysis. But it did feel like a release after the preceding dialectic of indifference. Perhaps art, which admittedly has been fetishised as a site of play, ambivalence and otherness, is nevertheless suffering not from too much luxuriant, escapist incertitude, but too little. There is a danger that, following the lead of a newly humble and self-flagellant capitalism (which, after all, has borrowed its new clothes from earlier artistic and political ‘creatives’), artists will feel obliged to downplay art’s residual freedoms, hairshirting themselves into the same reflex of repentance that gives us reality TV ("we don’t want to make the viewer’s feel they are less interesting or important than the stars — plus we’re strapped for cash"). Meanwhile, beyond the confines of the gallery, the artists and activists had been upstaged by events in Seattle, an eruption of organised political opposition to corporate domination which made it all look suddenly rather academic. Ironic or what?

Benedict Seymour <ben AT>

Proud to be Flesh